Feedback connoisseur

I’ve written before, across a few different posts, about the challenge of giving and receiving feedback/critiques, but because of my recent involvement in two local writing groups, the topic has been on my mind again.

I think a lot of people—writers and nonwriters alike—think that receiving feedback should be easy. I mean, you just have to listen and maybe take notes. On the surface, that doesn’t seem very hard.

But as I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s tougher than it sounds to receive feedback. A writer usually gets emotionally involved in their stories to some degree, even if they’re complete fiction. When you decide to share a story for critique, you have to separate yourself from the work as much as possible, but it’s never enough. Even when you know that the story can be improved, even when you expect that the first (or second or third) readers will find problems, it’s hard to look at a copy of your story all covered in pen or pencil marks and not start having a slight panic attack.

At that stage, people who are not used to receiving feedback usually make one of two mistakes: they take everything to heart or they ignore everything. Most people can guess the folly of the latter approach, but the former is just as rash.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read about how to handle feedback is from Neil Gaiman:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

This still sticks with me because I’ve rarely heard a writer admit that not all feedback is created equal or should be given equal weight. There are a few reasons for these sub-optimal critiques: some readers will unintentionally try to rewrite your work in their own style or a style they prefer; sometimes a reader will approach your story with certain expectations, and their feedback will be about how to meet those expectations (which will always boil down to: write a different story); sometimes the story overall just won’t appeal to a particular reader.

So you, as the feedback receiver, need to learn to distinguish these critiques from the useful ones. You can still dig good advice out of feedback that falls into one of the aforementioned categories, but that takes experience and objectivity about your own work—and that is when Neil Gaiman’s advice comes in handy. If someone points out a scene that doesn’t work for them, flag that scene for your own critical evaluation (especially if other readers also pinpoint that scene as a problem), but if that person goes on to try and rewrite the scene for you, it’s probably safe to discard that part of the feedback.

This goes against the pervasive idea that once you open yourself up for critique, you have to use all the feedback. If you do that, you’ll end up with a patchwork story that has essentially been written by a group of other writers. When you ask for feedback, it is your job as the story creator to distill the critique down to its useful parts (being as objective as possible, which is another skill you develop over time) and then implement that advice.

It took me a long time to become a feedback connoisseur, and I’m still learning, but I set a few ground rules that have helped:

  1. It’s okay not to implement all the feedback you receive.
  2. Do not respond to feedback unless you are asked a direct question.

The Neil Gaiman quote above inspired the first rule; it was an important step for me to take when I started seeking feedback. The second rule came from some thoughts from John Green:

“I don’t know what happens to anyone outside the text of the novel [The Fault In Our Stars]. I have access to the exact same text that you do, and any speculation on my part about the characters or events outside the text of the novel would be no more informed or authoritative than your speculation.”

That quote is in a Q&A that is not explicitly about receiving feedback, but I took the idea of “death of the author” and decided to apply that to feedback and drafts: the story should stand on its own. The reader gleans what they do from a short story or novel, and the author’s opinion should not be considered more authoritative, as John Green puts it. With drafts it’s a little different because you might have accidentally left out vital information that the reader needs to reach the conclusion along with the characters, but I think the essence is the same for drafts as it is for published stories—your opinion as the writer is not more valuable than a reader’s opinion.

Before I came up with rule #2, I found that when I would reply to feedback, to explain or expound upon something, it almost always came across defensive or condescending even though I never meant it that way. So now I listen to feedback, I take notes, and—because it’s a draft—if they ask me a question, I will answer it. But I try to avoid getting into lengthy explanations unless I’m specifically seeking advice on a part I’m struggling with, in which case a description of what I’m trying to accomplish and how/why I’m stuck is essential.

So far, these few rules and approaches I take to receiving feedback have helped me a great deal—but as you can see, receiving critiques is just as much work, if not more, than giving them. The best thing to do is establish your own ground rules that allow you to get the most out of the feedback you receive.

About Nicole DeGennaro

Burgeoning writer, insatiable reader, and continuous dreamer.
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8 Responses to Feedback connoisseur

  1. Good advice. I struggle a little, because I have a tendency to try to leave out ancillary information to let readers reach what I think are logical conclusions on their own. Then they all reach different conclusions, which doesn’t work well for the intent of the story. I’m still working on how to resolve that conundrum to my satisfaction, but it makes accepting feedback tricky.

    • I still struggle! Even learning to accept good feedback is hard, and then you also have to learn to distinguish between that and the not so useful feedback. I also tend to leave information out—intentionally, because I like to let readers fill in some of the blanks (even if they’ll fill them in differently), but in drafts I’ll often leave out too much. So I have the same issue with feedback and knowing how much of that extra information to add back in and how much to keep out. It’s a tough balance to strike!

  2. Victoria Perrone says:

    LOVE THIS, Yes, there is one chapter in my book that I really really like the way the style/ form is, not that it can’t be helped in other ways, it has needed help, but the style/ form still has not caused me to want to change that part, although I sometimes wonder ‘am I right?’. As far as everything else I have been helped by, I have really appreciated, because I can not tell when I read it, myself, what others do not see. But I seem not to be giving in to that advice to change that one chapter’s style/ form. I guess that is what is called ‘healthy acceptance of feedback?’

    Anyway thanks for helping us to clarify that it is OK to choose for yourself to accept or not accept a person’s critique, and how to receive critiques also in a polite manner, with the perspective of not getting defensive.

    • I’m glad you found my advice useful, Vicky! I think the best way to know if the style is working is through editing—once you fix any other known problems with a scene or a chapter, if readers are still having trouble with it, then the style might need to be tweaked as well (even if you, as the writer, like or intend the style). But generally I’ll “kill my darlings” last, as the saying goes, because sometimes they aren’t actually the problem. Your intention, as the writer, isn’t always enough to justify a style or scene if it isn’t working, but you can and should try to make it work the way you want it first before you admit defeat. 😉

      But the fact that you’re open to other feedback and plan to make changes based on it is a good indicator that you’re honing your skill for what feedback to utilize and which to set aside. And you can always return to the feedback you chose not to listen to the first time and implement it later! In the end, it comes down to trial and error until you find what works best for your chapter/scene/story.

  3. Isaac Yuen says:

    Very interesting distinction between accepting general versus specific feedback. I`ve become aware of my tendency to insert my own suggestions into someone else`s story, especially if it`s a story that I really like. You`re right – ultimately you want it to be your own work and not a patchwork of other people`s ideas.

    • Neil Gaiman’s advice about general vs. specific feedback led to a huge paradigm shift for me, so I’m glad you found it interesting. I think making suggestions is okay—even though every writer has their own style, there are ways to tighten wording that make sentences/paragraphs/scenes stronger but still stick to personal style. If you’re only making a few wording suggestions here and there, that’s not bad feedback. But if you’re rewriting whole paragraphs of someone else’s story, then that’s definitely too much. It’s not always easy to find the line between the two when you’re giving feedback, which is why it’s important for a writer to refine their sense of what feedback to keep and what to ignore.

      • Isaac Yuen says:

        When I give opinionated feedback, which again happens when I get the sense of the potential of a piece but is not quite there, I am working to add a “what do you think?” at the end of my comment. It helps me remember to be respectful while offering some breathing room for the other person so they don’t get overwhelmed. Seems to work well!

      • I think that’s a great idea! I do something similar sometimes, and I agree that it helps give the writer some breathing room.

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